The fire management branch of the Southern Ute Agency stopped a prescribed burn Monday on reservation land because of risky weather and fuel conditions.
The tribal agency began the burn planned for about 1,400 acres Sunday, burning about 1% of those acres before canceling the burn. Smoke may still be present in the area while crews hold the accomplished acreage. Prescribed burns, or planned fires, are one of the most important fire management tools, according to the National Parks Service. Shrubbery and dead material in the burn area, in addition to weather conditions, made the burn too risky.
“The conditions were really wet at the beginning of the summer,” said Lindsay Box, public information officer for the fire management branch, “but then they became too dry too fast, and it’s now become too hot, that the conditions are not great conditions to do prescribed burns in.”
The Southern Ute Agency originally planned to burn 1,066 acres in west Sandoval Canyon and 340 acres in east Cabezon Canyon over five days starting Sunday. Fifty firefighters from several tribes and agencies – including Southern Ute, Mescalero and Crow, the Los Pinos Fire Protection District and the southwest regional Bureau of Indian Affairs – were available to assist with the burn.
The purpose of the burn was to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations and to improve wildlife habitat. However, under current conditions, a prescribed burn in the area would put firefighters at risk, Box said.
In addition to public and fire staff safety, agencies consider weather and the probability of meeting burn objectives when they plan prescribed fires. Surveys suggest urban residents doubt the ability for managers to control prescribed fires; however, 99% of prescribed fires conducted by landowner cooperatives occurred without incident, according to a 2015 analysis from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and Oklahoma State University. In 2012, only 14 out of 16,600 prescribed fires around the nation escaped, or 0.08%, according to a 2013 report by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
In the meantime, chances of a fire starting because of uncontrolled campfires in the area are low, Box said. The acres are tribal trust land, open only to tribal members. “Tribal members can go out and camp, but that doesn’t happen very often,” she said.
The agency will continue to monitor the area while the weather cools, and it will give the community updates as needed. Rescheduling the prescribed burn will depend on moisture levels and temperatures in coming weeks.
“It really kind of depends on that sort of stuff. It’s kind of hard to say that in mid-October we should be good,” Box said. “Everything just got too dry and hot too quickly this summer.”